Martin Scorsese is a great filmmaker. He has awards, adulation, and commercial success, the trifecta for a career in the motion picture industry.
A while back he took a shot at the Marvel universe. He doesn’t consider movies with men in tights and women in cosplay costumes doing battle with super villains as true cinema: “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
I am not a particularly great fan of Scorsese’s work. I certainly agree with many critics that his work is almost always well-crafted and his characters, brutal as almost every single one of them appear to be, are written and performed under his steady hand, and transformed into fascinating and compelling studies of human behavior. But people slow down to see the car wreck on the other side of the freeway too, which is another compelling study in human behavior, but not always part of our better angels.
Unlike Scorsese, I like the Marvel movies, and I’m willing to consider them expertly made and even artful. Like Scorsese movies, they too are well written and usually helmed by directors and producers who “get” their franchise and deliver what great masses of people want. It may be a kind of industrial art, but it is still art.
The great Catholic novelist Graham Greene said he wrote two kinds of books. He wrote “novels” like “The Comedians,” and he wrote “entertainments” like “Our Man in Havana.” The former is a deep psychological and human drama of personal relationships taking place in Haiti during the upheaval of a revolution. It certainly adheres to the Scorsese dictum of characters conveying emotional information from one to another.
The latter is a tale of a quirky vacuum cleaner salesman who sells Cuban missile sight drawings to the CIA based on his latest vacuum cleaner model to keep his daughter in the local Havana Catholic boarding school in pre-Castro Cuba. Fluffier material to be sure, but there are nuggets of truth and emotional impact even within that “entertainment” that are lasting and compelling.
A story swept in on a recent news cycle that puts the “Marvel as art” conversation in a totally new light. A little 6-year-old boy, someone who wouldn’t know “Good Fellas” from “The Irishman” — at least I hope he doesn’t — did something extraordinary. His name is Bridger Walker and he lives in a little town nobody has ever heard of in Wyoming.
Like a lot of 6-year-old boys, he loves wearing capes and fighting imaginary foes just like his hero, Captain America. Bridger was in his own yard with his 4-year-old sister when a neighbor’s dog came charging at them. Little Bridger purposely put himself between the dog and his little sister. He could have been killed.
It took 90 stitches to repair his face, and he now has many years of reconstructive surgery in his future. Why did he do this? It’s what his celluloid hero Captain America would have done.
Before the advent of modern art and the film industry, art was supposed to inspire us with beauty and encourage virtue. We’ve now had generations of art whose purpose is to disturb and disquiet us to the extent that any art attempting to do the opposite. If you think movies are new to this theme, check out German expressionist silent films from the 1920s.
Hollywood, where the worship of the box audience always reigns supreme, makes allowances for mass audience entertainment; it pays the rent for everything else. And a lifetime return on investment of an “artsy” movie wouldn’t match a slow weekend of receipts for a Marvel movie.
Bridger Walker doesn’t know a thing about return on investment, below-the-line costs, or backend points in the Hollywood production machine. He only knew what Captain America would do in that Wyoming backyard if he were there. He wasn’t, but Bridger was and he acted accordingly.
Chris Evans, the “real” Captain America, reached out to Bridger and commended him on his courage. If you can watch the split-screen video of Chris Evans speaking to Walker (in full Captain America regalia) and not begin to tear up, you’re a better man than I am.
Chris Evans told Walker how brave he was and that he was truly a superhero for putting his life on the line to save his little sister. In short, the art that Chris Evans and the rest of the Marvel world has produced in so many films acted like real art. It inspired someone to a greater virtue. And for little Bridger Walker, that virtue was one of the greatest biblical virtues of all — to lay down one’s life for another.
So maybe characters like Ironman, Captain America, or Black Panther are never going to be confused with Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello. And they certainly won’t be compared to the litany of miscreants and troubled souls to be found in Scorsese’s oeuvre; but to a brave boy in Wyoming, those “non-cinematic” characters produced art that inspired greatness.